Why Be a Parent?

‘La Famille’; photograph by Alain Laboile from Family Photography Now, a collection of work by forty contemporary photographers. It includes essays by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, and is published by Thames and Hudson.
Alain Laboile
‘La Famille’; photograph by Alain Laboile from Family Photography Now, a collection of work by forty contemporary photographers. It includes essays by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, and is published by Thames and Hudson.

Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter is yet another entry among the tens of thousands of books geared to middle-class parents about raising children. But her book is different, she claims, because it distinguishes between “parenting,” a word she dislikes, and “being a parent.” The title of the book is meant to illustrate the distinction. A carpenter, according to Gopnik, sets out to produce a particular kind of finished product, and when parents try to do that, it is parenting—what she calls “goal-directed work.”

In contrast, says Gopnik, a gardener provides a nourishing and protected environment, where all kinds of things can grow unpredictably, including, in her metaphor, different sorts of children who will determine their own varied futures. In her words, “In the parenting model, being a parent is like being a carpenter…your job is to shape that material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind to begin with.” But, she says, “Caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener.” She calls this “a kind of love” instead of “a kind of work,” which certainly puts a thumb on the scale. Among the many problems with the metaphor is that not many gardeners I know would agree that “our greatest horticultural triumphs and joys also come when the garden escapes our control.” (When they plant tulip bulbs, they expect tulips.)

But the major problem with the comparison is that it’s a straw man, or two straw men. Very few parents are either gardeners or carpenters of children. Except for the extremes, like Dora Black, who with her husband, Bertrand Russell, established a famously goal-free school in 1927, and Amy Chua, the tiger mother, they neither leave children directionless to become whatever they will, nor try to produce a specific kind of adult. Most parents lie between those two extremes, including, it seems to me, Gopnik herself.

For example, she says that gardeners of children can “help create a new generation that is robust and adaptable and resilient.” That sounds like a goal to me. She points out that talking and reading to children “really makes a difference” in their language abilities. Isn’t that a goal? And “The job for school-age children is to start actually becoming competent adults themselves”—something both gardeners and carpenters would agree on. Gopnik is clearly devoted to her grown sons and their children, and seems to be a terrific grandmother. But she hasn’t convinced me that she does anything much different from other well-heeled, well-educated grandmothers. While she is obviously right that no one can determine how any given child will turn out, what we do know is that success, however defined, is much more likely in households like hers, whether the parents are gardeners or carpenters.

Yet she persists in pushing her metaphor, and buttresses it with descriptions of experiments that indicate that even very young children are much more perceptive than we think, so instead of trying to teach them we should get out of their way. (Some of these experiments trouble me, because they entailed deceiving the children, and of course it’s not possible from brief descriptions to evaluate their validity.) She argues for integrating children into daily activities so they learn by observing and imitating their parents and other adults. She’s right, I think, that children should do more learning by doing (including helping with household chores), but being taught didactically and learning by doing are not mutually exclusive.

Particularly by school age, education should efficiently impart a body of information. (We really should bring back the good old lecture.) Children don’t pick up algebra and biology on their own, and she is only half right that “you learn to write by writing, over and over again.” As she is surely aware, you also need to know something about the rules of grammar. But underneath it all, her essential message is that children learn more by experience than by watching Baby Einstein, and I have no trouble accepting that.

Fortunately, for most of her book, Gopnik pretty much drops the metaphor, and also says little about how individual parents should raise individual children (nothing, for example, about what to do if your child refuses to eat his vegetables). This is not a how-to book, as she reassures us right at the beginning. Instead, she steps back from the specifics of being a parent and gives us a brief tour of…well…everything: evolution, comparative zoology (did you know that crows are very, very smart, maybe even smarter in some ways than chimpanzees?), anthropology, developmental psychology, genetics and epigenetics, sociology and politics. And when she gets away from gardeners and carpenters, things go much better, despite the impossible breadth of her focus.

Among the book’s strengths is that Gopnik leaves no doubt about where she stands on the peculiarly American way of leaving families on their own in an increasingly unequal society. “Middle-class parents are consumed by the pressure to acquire parenting expertise,” she writes.

They spend literally billions of dollars on parenting advice and equipment. But at the same time, the social institutions of the United States, the great originator and epicenter of parenting, provide less support to children than those of any other developed country. The United States, where all those parenting books are sold, also has the highest rates of infant mortality and child poverty in the developed world.

She is dead right. Unlike other countries, we provide little help to parents and children, despite an abundance of sentimental lip service about the value of children. We have no mandatory paid maternity leave (forget about paternity leave), we provide no help at home after childbirth, no time off from work to care for sick children, no child care for working parents—none of the services that, say, France offers automatically without breaking the bank. (Gopnik also mentions the similar abandonment of the elderly, although Social Security and Medicare help there.) In short, she is dismayed, as am I, by the fact that every family in the United States is largely on its own to face the enormous expense and hardships of raising children, as well as caring for others in the family who need help.

Moreover, she takes a clear, if brief, stand on some related controversial issues. Abortion should be available, she believes, and she courageously confesses to having had one. She obviously dislikes current gun policies in much of the US—namely, permitting almost anyone to buy almost any kind of gun they want. In one quick sentence, she says:

Just as we can cover the plugs and gate the staircases for three-year-olds, we can adopt policies, from making condoms more available to making guns less so, that can at least make adolescent experimentation less perilous.

In itself, something of a drive-by shooting.

Gopnik is also strongly opposed to the current trend of submitting school-age children to more and more standardized tests, as well as other forms of what amounts to résumé-building. I agree, not so much because testing cannot serve a useful function, but because the standardization and use to which the tests are put are counterproductive. (There’s an analogy in the current efforts to standardize medical care. Teachers and schools, like doctors and hospitals, are increasingly evaluated and partially paid according to results that have very little to do with the needs of the students and patients for whom they’re responsible.) Not only does standardized testing encourage teachers to concentrate only on the skills necessary to pass the particular tests (“teaching to the test”), but it leads to neglect of subjects not tested—for example, music and art.

Paradoxically, then, while it’s supposed to improve education, such testing really does the opposite—it narrows it. Gopnik believes it might also contribute to the increase in diagnoses of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)—which she refers to as a “cottage industry.”

When schools are under pressure to produce high test scores, they become motivated, consciously or unconsciously, to encourage ADHD diagnoses—either because the drugs allow low-performing children to score better or because ADHD diagnoses can be used to exclude children from testing.

‘Camptown Races,’ 2005; photograph by Julie Blackmon from her ‘Domestic Vacations’ series
Julie Blackmon/Robert Mann Gallery, New York
‘Camptown Races,’ 2005; photograph by Julie Blackmon from her ‘Domestic Vacations’ series

Middle-class children are now under extraordinary pressure not just from tests at school but from increasing amounts of homework and other structured activities to give them a leg up in their college applications. Gopnik attributes the problem to the “parenting model,” which she says “has led to the notoriously overscheduled life of official school classes, followed by extracurriculars, followed by homework.” She is right to protest the situation but not to lay it at the feet of carpenter parents. Instead, I believe it stems from the fact that in a society with growing financial strains even for middle-class families, parents are concerned that their children might fall behind, that when they’re adults they might be living in the basement forever. Parents know full well that income is generally a function of education, and they want to be assured that their schools are, even from the earliest grades, up to the job; hence the standardized testing. All of this comes from anxiety and insecurity, not from any particular parenting style. I know many parents who greatly wish their children weren’t so burdened with tests and homework, but feel they have no choice.

The first sentence in Gopnik’s book is “Why be a parent?” Good question, but she answers it only abstractly, saying that having children “allows a new kind of human being to come into the world.” She does say that being a parent is profoundly satisfying, even if exhausting, but that tells us why you’re glad you did it, not why you did it. In thinking about the reasons in my own family, I realized that they have probably varied over the generations but have some things in common. One set of my grandparents (about 1880 to 1960), who farmed, fished, and built boats, had eleven children; the children provided much-needed labor, even when very young, and they were a source of pride, particularly for my grandfather (I think he saw them as proof of potency), not to mention a bid for family immortality. They were also a form of old-age and medical insurance.

My parents (about 1906 to 1990) lived a different life. They had only two children and we were of almost no use. My father worked in an office that might as well have been on the moon, and my mother was a housewife without much to do after we were of school age. I think they had children because it was expected of them, and besides, what else could my mother do? But they liked the idea of family (the reality, maybe not so much), and here, too, it offered security in old age and continuation of the dynasty, such as it was.

I am seventy-seven years old and, like Gopnik, the mother of grown children who have young children of their own, and also a woman with a postgraduate degree and a demanding profession. I knew the planet didn’t need more children, and there was now some safety net for old age and illness. So why did I have children? All I can say is that I wanted them very much, partly for the lifelong love and companionship of people whose character and values I had helped form. (Here Gopnik might accuse me of being something of a carpenter, and I may have been, but she is too, I suspect.) And like Gopnik, I am glad I had them.

Nevertheless, despite an unbroken chain of people choosing to have children, albeit for different reasons, we are now living at a time when fewer and fewer women are making that choice. The most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that the fertility rate for American women ages fifteen to forty-four was 62.9 per thousand in 2014, the lowest ever recorded. In 1950 it was 106.2 per thousand, 70 percent higher. Moreover, according to Sophie Gilbert in her review in The Atlantic of a book edited by Meghan Daum, titled Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed (2015), which contains essays by writers who chose not to have children, 25 percent of women with college degrees never have children. Despite the new focus of celebrity magazines on celebrity babies, more young people seem to be finding sufficiently close and sustaining relationships with one another to forgo parenthood.

Of all the important issues Gopnik raises in her book, the most thorny is the tension between love of one’s own children and concern for other people’s children. She acknowledges that our immersion in raising our own children is so complete that we sometimes forget the well-being of children in general—even the world at large—but she doesn’t take that discussion far enough. What are the social consequences of this intense love for one’s particular children?

Francis Bacon referred to children as “hostages to fortune” (he included wives in the quote, but that’s no longer applicable), and it’s certainly true that having children gives us a huge stake in the future. Probably most of us love our children even more than ourselves, and we do what we can to provide for their futures. In theory, this should make us more cognizant of the state of the world and our particular part of it. We should want to make every effort, for example, to mitigate global warming, conserve natural resources, maintain infrastructure, and do our part toward creating a more decent and sustainable society.

But in this time of grotesque inequality in the US, that is not what’s happening. In fact, it seems to me that the opposite is happening. Affluent and well-educated Americans, by which I mean roughly the upper 20 percent of the socioeconomic strata, are instead narrowly concentrating on ensuring that their children retain their privileges. I think this tendency first became apparent to me in the 1990s, when “soccer moms” began to drive around in huge SUVs that were more like tanks than cars. The message that could have been on a bumper sticker was, “No matter what happens, my kids will be safe, even while yours might be toast.”

It is far worse now. Not the cars, but the rest of life. Seeing the growing insecurity of the working class, not to mention the poor, parents are determined to keep their kids on the right side of the income gap. They see the way to do that is providing ever more education and ever larger inheritances. Thus, if they can possibly afford it, they select the best private schools, trainers to give their children swimming, tennis, music, art, and every other sort of lesson, and make sure they participate in the requisite number of team sports and other extracurricular activities.

The children have no time left in their jam-packed days to explore their own interests or to read books that aren’t assigned in school—or just to lie in the grass, look at the clouds, and daydream. Instead, they fall into bed exhausted at the end of the day and wake to get on the treadmill again. A shy or introverted child is not acceptable, so some children might need the modern equivalent of charm school, which is often some sort of treatment for a putative psychological disorder. By the time some children are in high school, they’ve acquired a flotilla of private tutors to coach them in college entrance exams, and they’ve been trained in how to write exactly the right sort of essay, beginning with a proper topic sentence.

All of this takes an enormous amount of work and attention by the parents, not to mention serious money. And, I believe, it creates an enormous amount of anxiety in the children, who learn well enough that everything seems to depend on their performance, and that they’re in competition with similar children in the same class. These parents are so consumed by trying to ensure the future for their children and, they believe, their happiness—often while both are juggling demanding careers—that there is almost no time or energy left for anything else, whether civic and political engagement, keeping up with national and world events, or reading for their own pleasure and knowledge. The focus on the hostages they have given to fortune is narrow and laser-like.

As for money, affluent parents sock away as much as possible, preferably in tax-exempt entities, for their children’s future needs, just in case. I don’t know what the average amount of charitable contributions is for the upper-middle class, but I doubt it’s anywhere near a tithe. It’s not that they’re inherently ungenerous; it’s just that they act that way. (The story is a little different, I think, for the really rich, the upper one percent. Here the mother is often at home, with a panoply of servants, and there is probably less fear about plummeting down the socioeconomic ladder.)

The overall picture I’ve painted will seem one of overweening selfishness and rampant competitiveness, but I don’t think that is what it really is, or at least not entirely. Instead it’s the natural fear of parents for their children in an increasingly precarious and unequal world—something quite different. The love of parents for their children is unlike any other feeling, and it justifies nearly anything. But there is also some degree of selfishness involved, in that for many parents their children’s success reflects on them. And witness the astute word choice of politicians campaigning for office. They always invoke “families,” never individuals, because it is considered virtuous to want more for your family but not for yourself.

Here is a question: Suppose the upper-middle class and the lower layer of the rich didn’t have children. How would they behave?

Maybe better. Possibly they would pay more attention to the world outside their homes and be more likely to see themselves as active members of a community. They might be more generous toward people less fortunate than themselves. They might even be willing to accept considerably higher tax rates to mitigate inequality, counter global warming, restore our crumbling infrastructure, and expand government services. People will, of course, make the opposite argument. If there is no progeny, why bother? Louis XV supposedly said, “Après moi le déluge,” and conceivably that would be the attitude of many people without children. But I don’t think so. I suspect they would regard themselves more as members of a large interdependent group on a very large life raft.

Children, then, are the good news and the bad news. For most of us they enrich our lives beyond measure. I would have done almost anything for my children, and they feel the same way about theirs. But children are also the problem. They are so precious that their parents concentrate on them to the exclusion of nearly everything else and feel justified in doing so. That seems to be what citizenship now means: every family for itself. I wish we could find a middle ground—yes to children, but no to letting our anxieties for them supplant every other human impulse. It would go a long way toward that end if, as urged by Gopnik, we were to adopt policies like those of other advanced countries to help parents raise children—whether you call it parenting or being a parent.